La Bête Humaine – Émile Zola

[This is a journal in four sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how it would end until I had read the final section.]

30 May 2016
Chapters 1-3 (of twelve)
By the end of Chapter 2 we’ve been introduced to la bête in at least two human forms, and the jury’s out on a third. It’s near the end of that chapter when one character, desperate to avoid putting himself in the way of temptation – he has a morbid fear that he will murder any woman he comes close to – is wandering near a railway line and witnesses a bloody murder being carried out in the carriage of a passing train. We aren’t tempted for a moment to suspect that this is only taking place in the man’s imagination, because we know who the killer is, having been present in Chapter 1 when he set things up for the murder to take place on the 6.30 from Paris to Le Havre. Meanwhile there’s another man – so far it’s always men who are inhabited by la bête in this murderous form – who might or might not be poisoning his wife for the rather meagre legacy she has hidden away from him.

I only tend to read something like one French 19th Century French novel for every ten English ones, and they always take me by surprise. Even before the end of Chapter 1, as assistant stationmaster Roubaud comes close to strangling his wife Séverine, I was thinking grand guignol. There must have been something in the air in Paris in the 1890s, because the theatre of that name was opened in 1897, six years after La Bête Humaine was published. (To be fair, Robert Louis Stevenson had published his often luridly detailed novella based on the beast inside Dr Jekyll five years before La Bête. At one point Mr Hyde ‘broke out of all bounds and clubbed [the old man] to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.’ But this wasn’t the norm in respectable fiction in Britain: it was really only entertainers like Stevenson and Conan Doyle who were pushing the boundaries of taste. The last thing that Zola is interested in is respectability.)

The explicitness of the sex and violence isn’t the only thing that comes as a surprise. Zola is meticulous in building up an almost hyper-real impression of people’s lives in 1869, when the novel is set. The railway doesn’t form a shadowy background to the activities of the characters, but is almost a character in its own right. The hard infrastructure of a Parisian station is always there in Chapter 1 – the view Roubaud looks out on from the room he is borrowing for the day overlooks roofs and lines and rolling-stock described in meticulous detail – and in Chapter 2, the line that thrusts its way relentlessly through the rolling countryside to the north is unstoppable. There’s something of la bête about this ready-made symbol of 19th Century industrialisation. By the 1860s, Zola is already insisting, it is turning people into something strange:

‘At this moment the train passed in its storm-like violence, as if it would sweep everything before it. The house shook, engulfed by a blast of air…. Notwithstanding the speed, by the lit-up glass of the doors one caught sight of the full compartments, of the lines of heads side by side, close together, each with its particular profile. They followed one another and disappeared. What a multitude! The crowd again, the crowd without end, amidst the rolling of the carriages, the whistling of the locomotives, the tinkling of the telegraph, the ringing of bells! It was like a huge body, a gigantic creature stretched across the earth, the head at Paris, the vertebrae all along the line, the limbs expanding with every branch-line, the feet and hands at Le Havre and other destinations. And it passed, passed, mechanically, triumphant, advancing to the future with mathematical precision, determinedly oblivious to the rest of human life on either side, life unseen and yet perennial, with its eternal passions and eternal crimes.’

But you can’t blame the railways for the beasts inside both Roubaud and Jacques Lantier, the troubled character we meet in Chapter 2. You have to blame Zola for those, I guess, or… what? A conviction he must have had, I suppose, that the male of the species living in the impossible society that was mid-19th Century France was bound to become the victim of undeniable drives. Or something. Whatever it is, in Roubaud it’s jealousy that quickly shades into the uncontrollably pathological. When he half-strangles Séverine into a possibly truthful confession that she had allowed Grandmorin, an ageing ‘president’ of the railway company, to have sex with her since her teens – it would account for the many favours he’s granted the rather plodding Roubaud since his marriage to her – he comes close to killing her on the spot. But no, he will kill Grandmorin instead, by forcing her to send him a letter telling him to get the same train out of Paris that she is getting on.

This is the murder that Lantier witnesses. He’s a train-driver, and would normally have been driving that very train had it not been for a technical problem with a locomotive that keeps him idle for 24 hours, and he’s the second candidate for bête status. He’s avoiding Flore, the big, stupid, sexy daughter of the woman who had always been like a second mother to him. He’s gone to visit her, now living with her second husband right next to the railway line – the stupendous noise and vibrations from passing express trains are a constant intrusion – and she has become housebound despite still only being in her 40s. She suspects that her husband, a cold fish of a signalman, is yet another potential murderer. She’s sure he’s poisoning her. Lantier doesn’t really believe it at first, but it’s just as likely to be true as not in this novel.

Lantier’s own contribution to the grand guignol, so far, is only in his imagination. Since puberty – he’s 26 now – any contact with women has led to lurid images arising in his mind of him thrusting a knife into the soft flesh he knows is there, waiting for him to do it. Zola is totally aware of the distorted sexuality of this, making it explicit as, following a disturbingly arousing encounter with Flore, Lantier tears himself away from her and wanders off into the night. He finds himself drawn to the mouth of the nearby railway tunnel, then away and back to the line as though by magnetic force. That’s when he witnesses Roubaud cutting Grandmorin’s throat, although he doesn’t consciously recognise them or the dark shape of the woman helping. Later, the alleged poisoner tells him he thinks he’s seen a body next to the line. It’s the president’s and Lantier can’t help but move the head to see what a cut throat looks like. He decides not to report what he saw in the carriage….

Grandmorin, now I think about it, is confirmed as the fourth bête as we move into Chapter 3. I suppose he’s the first, in fact, because according to the gossiping women who work at the station in Le Havre where Roubaud works, he’s been doing what he does to quite young girls for a very long time. The gossips take it for granted that Roubaud has got his job because of the sexual favours his young wife has been offering Grandmorin since girlhood… which appears to be the world of this novel. There are a lot of minor characters, other employees of the railway, and either they behave badly – one driver has a mistress at both ends of the line – or they gossip gleefully about everybody else’s failings.

What more to say? Roubaud is terrified all morning, before the arrival of the telegram that confirms the discovery of the body. The carriage is examined – Zola has pulled a few plot strings to have it kept at Le Havre – and there are lurid descriptions of blood lying in a pool in an indentation of a seat cushion, and all over the carriage floor. The cleaners will be in for it – they should have inspected the carriage when it arrived – and in fact, a lot of the conversation of these people is to do with jobs done properly, or not, and who is getting paid more than they should. The experience of being employed by a company that seems to symbolise faceless, unstoppable capitalism is almost as nasty as everything else in this universe.

And… arriving for his shift Lantier, to his own surprise, blurts out what he saw taking place in the speeding carriage. He says he can’t identify the man who wielded the knife and he doesn’t mention the woman who was also there, but it terrifies Roubaud all over again. Surrounded by other employees who, predictably, have gathered around to hear all the grim details, the murderer carefully constructs a story that sounds plausible. Yes, they were on the train, but no, he didn’t see anything, because… etc. He keeps getting his wife to confirm everything he says, but it seems unlikely that he won’t be subject to a more searching interrogation soon.

What do I think? God knows. It isn’t like anything else I’ve ever read.

3 June
Chapters 4-6
I mentioned the idea of a searching interrogation. Hah. Through a combination of incompetence, misplaced self-belief and the promise of promotion if the whole case can be buried, the investigation comes to nothing. There are grimly satirical interrogations not only of the Roubauds but of a completely innocent man the investigating magistrate is convinced is the murderer… and then things develop further. By the end, the magistrate and his boss know perfectly well who the real murderers are – but in this universe, earnest questions of conscience are quickly subsumed into the Realpolitik of life in 1869. (The political rivalries and uncertainties of this era in France make it ideal for Zola’s satirical take on the detective genre. All the participants have to keep watching their backs, painfully aware of hysterical press coverage of everything they do.) In the meantime, we’ve been properly introduced to Cabuche, candidate number five for bête status, a loutishly ignorant forestry worker with his own motive for murdering the president. The satirical spin in his case is that he is the most innocent character in the novel so far, and the only one who tells the unvarnished truth. Only it happens not to be the truth the magistrate wants to hear.

The magistrate, Denizet, is resentful that people he regards as his equals have been promoted above him for no good reason. His origins had been humble, and he is certain that Camy-Lamotte, the ‘secretary general’ on whose desk the murder case has landed, is only his superior because of strings pulled by people he knows. So he’s determined to show this man that he knows how to conduct a homicide investigation, and is quite certain that in Cabuche he has found the guilty man. During the course of a hectic morning a couple of weeks after the murder, Denizet has interviewed both Roubauds, Jacques Lantier, and Cabuche.

Zola gleefully shows us how the magistrate keeps getting it wrong, misinterpreting every sign given off by any of them. Séverine, as she always does, works her magic on him. She is an innocent too, of sorts, playing on what has become second nature to her in order to get any man on her side. She isn’t simply playing the part of the trapped ingénue, she simply uses all the means at her disposal to get on to her side the men who could do her harm. She does this to perfection with the magistrate even while she is terrified of blurting out the truth. Roubaud, against an easy opponent, is able to alter his description of a mysterious murderer (who supposedly boarded the train at Rouen) to fit whatever the magistrate wants to hear. Lantier – usually now, in fact, referred to as Jacques – thinks he has his own reasons to be evasive and never gives a straight answer. His discomfort is hugely increased when he is interviewed in the same room as Séverine and her husband. He finds her presence terribly unsettling and, alone with the magistrate again, he blurts out the new information that there might have been another person present at the murder. This doesn’t sway Denizet, who finds it impossible to suspect the charming Séverine.

Cabuche, by contrast, presents to the bourgeois-minded Denizet the very image of savagery and violence. As far as the magistrate is concerned, everything about this man – his physiognomy, his manner, his ignorance – declares his guilt. (It’s no accident that Zola has Denizet jump to this conclusion only a few pages after he has decided that Séverine’s looks and submissive manner proclaim her innocence. He’s an idiot.) The reason for Cabuche becoming a suspect goes back to Chapter 2. Flore’s sister Louisette, only fourteen years old, had been an employee in Grandmorin’s household. After work, she had often gone to see Cabuche in his woodland hovel not far from her mother’s house by the railway line. One day, not long before the events of Chapter 2, she had arrived at Cabuche’s so severely beaten that she hadn’t survived into the next day. Flore and her mother are sure that the perpetrator of this atrocity was Grandmorin himself, but there seems to have been no proper investigation of it. Messy cases tend to get buried, as we are coming to realise.

When Denizet presents his suspicion to Camy-Lamotte, he is not impressed. He can see Denizet’s limitations, sees how he revels in his status as magistrate and overestimates his own abilities. The secretary general has his own reasons for suspecting that both Roubauds are guilty, although he isn’t convinced that the motive is to do with the house that Séverine has always known would be left to her in Grandmorin’s will. In fact, after getting Séverine to write something for him he has now confirmed to himself that she wrote the short letter his own research has turned up, the one that got Grandmorin on to the train. But she has just finished subjecting Camy-Lamotte to the same treatment as Denizet before – she has gone to his house in Paris specially to plead their case, pretending that all she is worried about is that her husband thinks (correctly, as it transpires) that the company is going to sack him because the mud sticking to him – and, after making her come back later in the day, he tells her she has nothing to worry about. But she knows he knows about the letter….

Despite his attraction to her, his motive isn’t lust – Zola lets the reader know, and Camy-Lamotte lets Séverine know, that his days of chasing women are over – it’s politics. Despite having been close to Grandmorin, he is much more interested in getting his political masters off his back than coming to a just conclusion of the case. Pursuing either Cabuche or the Roubauds would be very messy, revealing Grandmorin’s past misdemeanours for all to see and bringing the company into even more disrepute. The newspapers would love it. He wants to bury it – a word Zola uses – so… he persuades Denizet that there will be rewards in it for him – if not promotion, then a Legion d’Honneur – if he gives up the investigation for lack of evidence. There’s nothing solid against Cabuche, obviously, and Jacques is simply not revealing that the people he saw on the train were the Roubauds. The case fades away amidst ever more outlandish tales of the mysterious murderer.

If this sounds like wall-to-wall plot, I’m sure it’s because that’s how Zola wants it to feel. Everybody has a motive for doing what they do, however wrong-headed, and the web they weave becomes tangled ever more tightly. Everybody has secrets and, knowingly or not, everybody else uses these for their own ends. Before Séverine goes to see Camy-Lamotte in Paris, Roubaud has made her understand how Jacques needs to be on their side. He, Roubaud, knows that she can do this, slips into the role of pimp as he lets her know how important it is for both their sakes…. And it works. Roubaud asks Jacques to look after her – as ever, he is to drive the Paris express she wants to take – and, despite his fears about his own behaviour, he agrees. She looks winningly vulnerable as she runs to call up to him on the footplate before he sets off, and she makes sure that he is happy to escort her around Paris….

By the end of Chapter 5, Camy-Lamotte has told her she is safe. But she doesn’t know what she has started going with Jacques, an unintended development that forms the main thread of Chapter 6. Long before the end of it, Jacques has declared her love for her – he is full of wonder, believing that she has cured him of his obsessive desire to kill – and, after some weeks of chaste little trysts in dark corners of the engine-sheds, they become lovers. Séverine had been the one keeping the meetings chaste – Jacques, by now, is sure that her magic has cured him of his homicidal urges and feels very close to her – and realises that she feels quite virginal with this man who behaves like no other that she has ever known. His gentle, considerate manner makes her believe he’s the first man she has ever fallen in love with, and this is what makes her relent. The first time is in the tool-shed behind the piles of coal, on the folded sacks. After that, in the passion of new-found love, they do it anywhere.

Meanwhile Roubaud, who has previously been a domineering bully, seems almost to have lost interest in her. His shift-patterns mean that they are often in bed at different times, and she realises how much she likes this. He is lost in his own world of anxiety and throws himself into his duties at work…. Then he discovers a new outlet, the card-games that have started up among his colleagues. In the weeks and months after the murder he becomes lost in a new obsession, gambling. It leads to one of the most squalid little scenes in this novel full of human squalor when, in the middle of the night, Séverine hears him chiselling up a parquet block in the sitting-room. This is where they have guiltily hidden the money they had taken from Grandmorin’s wallet to make it look like a robbery, and Roubaud had always insisted – far more than Séverine herself – that nothing in the world would ever make him touch this ‘blood-money’. Except now he’s so far in debt he changes his mind.

There’s a lot more going on in these chapters, none of it attractive. Only Cabuche brings a welcome honesty, if only to boast how he would have been happy to murder Grandmorin if somebody else hadn’t got to him first. Wherever Zola is taking us, it isn’t going to be an appealing place.

7 June
Chapters 7-9
Where Zola actually takes us, in Chapter 7 at least, is to the place in this novel where all paths seem to meet. How to get Flore, with her regrets about the way she rebuffed Jacques (that night when he thought he would kill her if he stayed a moment longer), close enough to him and Séverine to witness their mutual love? Answer: get Jacques’s train to run into an impenetrable bank of snow at the mouth of the very cutting (as far as I can tell) where Roubaud performed the murder. The first half of that chapter consists of the stomach-churningly well described journey Jacques has to undertake in order to reach that point. Whatever else it is, this novel is an extraordinary evocation of the railways in the 19th Century – with a focus, in this chapter, on the working lives of the driver and fireman. In a later chapter, when Jacques is at a low point, he wishes he could burn himself out long before the usual ‘twenty years’ that train drivers manage. On his snowbound journey north, it’s hard to imagine any of them living so long.

I mentioned tangled webs. They aren’t loosening in these three chapters, in spite of the seemingly genuine and solid love between Jacques and Séverine. By the end of Chapter 9, she has been able to move into the better apartment that should always have belonged to the Roubauds by right, one in which Jacques can come and go undetected by the gossips. Roubaud himself is there even less than he was at the old flat, so their joy should be unconfined. Hah. Instead, we have a variation of Act 1 of Macbeth. Séverine – now fast becoming the sixth candidate for bête status – first hints, then pushes more and more urgently, for Jacques to murder her husband. Three pages before the end of Chapter 9, knife at the ready, he has come within arm’s length of Roubaud as he does his night-time rounds. Intruders have recently become a nuisance and could therefore easily be blamed if he were to be found with his throat cut. However… with Séverine at his side, he lets Roubaud pass by in the darkness. ‘I can’t, I can’t.’

So, for now, that’s it. Over many pages leading up to this, Jacques has persuaded himself that there would be nothing wrong in taking the life of a murderer who is needlessly taking up space in the world – it would be the rational, the logical thing to do. He has a chance, in the way that sometimes happens in novels, to emigrate to America if he can invest just the sort of money that Séverine would make on the sale of the house she inherited. But when it comes to the coup de grace, he can’t do it. He’s had a recent relapse of his old trouble, has gone as far as to prowl the city looking for a victim to murder before coming to himself in time, but that’s different from this cold-blooded execution. ‘Murder would never be done by reasoning.’ And yet, in the very last sentence he speaks in this chapter, he’s promising all over again: ‘…Soon, I swear to you, as soon as I possibly can.’ Only after this does Séverine break through the barrier of coldness that has grown between them since his failure, over many days, to do the deed. Sex and murder are never far apart in this novel and now, as they kiss, ‘they merged, each with the other, in the communion of their flesh.’

Meanwhile, what else in this multi-layered novel – with each level at least as murky as all the others? The breakdown of the train allows Zola to revisit the scene of the alleged poisoning, with Jacques’s aunt worse than ever despite refusing, now, to use the salt she is convinced her husband is poisoning. Jacques still doesn’t believe her, but how would he know? The interior life of every person in this universe is so utterly secret that nobody can guess another person’s thoughts. It’s become a major thread. Flore thinks that Jacques’s escape into the night was because of sexual frustration… but how on earth would she guess the truth? Séverine, too, makes a similar mistake when Jacques suddenly seems to become distant from her. She has confessed everything to him about the murder, in disconcerting detail – he encourages her to describe every moment – and she thinks he visits less often because he hates the idea of her being a cold-blooded murderess. Wrong.

In fact, most of Chapter 8 consists of Jacques’s deeply disturbed state of mind as he compulsively re-lives every last detail of the murder. He had wanted to know exactly how she helped to restrain Grandmorin, all about the three times his body stiffened before expiring, the details of the disposal of the body. He finds himself wanting to re-enact the scene for himself – and this, when he can no longer sleep for obsessing about it, is when he goes out with a knife, looking…. I was reminded of Dr Jekyll all over again as Zola gives us a description of the obsessive killer’s state of mind. But unlike Stevenson’s novel, this section is told from the would-be killer’s point of view. It’s highly unsettling, especially when it seems to be only a chance event that prevents Jacques from killing a young mother with all her life ahead of her. (Ok, Zola does let her prattle on at inordinate length about the happiness of her new life with a loving, wealthy husband, but never mind that for now.)

So… both Séverine and Jacques are would-be murderers. Does that make them the same? Certainly, neither of them seems capable of understanding the moral depths they’ve fallen to, but there are differences. With Jacques it’s visceral and, in my opinion, less interesting. After the surprise revelation of his weird propensity in Chapter 2, descriptions of it seem somehow unremarkable. Maybe 120 years of psychopathic killers have inured readers like me to the lurid images of knife in soft white flesh that Zola has him imagine…. Whatever, it becomes more engaging when Jacques tries not only to reason his way into murdering Roubaud, now presented as a fattening, gambling-addicted lump, but to try and take advantages of his own murderous impulses. None of it works. ‘What did it matter if conscience was merely a set of ideas handed down from one generation to the next, the gradually accumulated, inherited notion of what is just! He simply did not feel that he had the right to kill….’ He might have a psychopathic urge to murder women – although he’s never actually carried out one of his vividly imagined stabbings – but he knows right from wrong. Like Macbeth before him, he knows that you don’t just kill a man because he’s stopping you from having what you want.

With Séverine it’s different. She’s no Lady Macbeth, despite the way she urges Jacques to commit murder. Lady Macbeth tries to go against her own nature, calls on spirits to ‘unsex’ her and fill her with cruelty – and we all know how conscience comes back to haunt her. With Séverine there seems to be no interior moral life to match the tortured conflict we see in Jacques. For the whole novel, right up to the moment when the idea of killing her husband seems to creep up on her unawares, her default mode is unthinking passivity. She never seems to think about anything, living her life from moment to moment and doing whatever she needs to in order just to carry on. Agreeing to marry Roubaud was like that – there was never any love, it just seemed like the best thing to do at the time – and the way we’ve seen her get three different men on to her side is presented as an unthinking instinct for self-preservation. The tacit promise of sex that underlies all these encounters – with Denizet, Camy-Lamotte and Jacques himself – has nothing to do with calculation.

This is even true of her part in the murder of Grandmorin. She finds herself in his private carriage with her husband, knowing that there’s nothing she can do to prevent what is coming next. She doesn’t want any of it – but, when the moment of crisis comes, what’s a woman to do? As she relates it to Jacques, she does what she always does, responding to the demands of the moment. When her husband finally makes his move, there’s an appalling struggle. At first she will have nothing to do with it, ‘pressing myself against the back of the seat to get as far away as possible.’ But Roubaud had delayed his attack too long, the train is speeding on towards the next station, and if Grandmorin lives to tell the tale they are both doomed. Instinct kicks in. ‘I have never been able to remember since how it happened’ – of course she hasn’t – ‘when I … just let myself drop like a package on top of him, crushing his legs with all my weight so that he couldn’t move.’ Séverine’s instincts are like the force of gravity. She just lets herself drop like a package.

Jacques is the one who tries to reason his way through his dilemmas. Séverine operates at a level that doesn’t involve any thinking at all. This is the bête in her – and as far as Jacques is concerned, it’s unstoppable.

11 June
Chapters 10-12 – to the end
Paths don’t just meet at that fateful stretch of railway line, a lot of them come to their final end. It might be a quiet end, if you can call the death of Jacques’s aunt a quiet one, or it might come in the cataclysmic crash of the Paris express, derailed by the despairing Flore. (She’s candidate number seven for bête status, and there’s an eighth yet to come). Both events, plus Flore’s gruesomely described suicide – there are plenty of gruesome things in this last section of the novel – have taken place by the end of Chapter 10.

And it isn’t over yet. Near this same spot you might get your throat cut from ear to ear, as Séverine discovers to her surprise. I was saying that the bête in her is unstoppable for Jacques – he really is going to have to kill Roubaud this time – until the beast in him stops it on his behalf. He and Séverine are waiting for her husband in the house she has inherited, situated near his aunt’s, and they wait to carry out the ambush on him that they have set up. But, in that innocent way of hers, she guesses wrongly why Jacques seems so nervous as she allows her negligee to fall from her shoulders. He has the knife ready for Roubaud and… what happens next is a first for him. All those other times he has imagined the primordial act of stabbing a woman in order to possess her, the act has stayed in his imagination. Now, his sense of total relief after the forensically described murder of Séverine makes him believe that he is cured forever. He’s wrong, as we knew he would be. What Zola seems to be insisting by the end of the novel is that whatever it is in mankind’s destructive (and self-destructive) nature, there’s no stopping it.

Near the end of the novel I suspected that it might end with Jacques locked into a Jack the Ripper-style round of serial killings. His ‘malady’ has returned after three months, and he realises that he is almost certain to kill the new lover he has taken on now that Séverine is no longer around. But Zola has never only been interested in a single individual – by the end, six of the main characters have deliberately brought about the deaths of others and the serial paedophile assaulted a young girl so badly she later died. But this isn’t enough for Zola, and he wants to take it up a notch. Jacques dies on the railway track two pages before the end, both he and his killer ‘hacked and chopped to pieces as they clung fast in their terrible embrace…. They were found later, decapitated, their feet severed, two bleeding trunks still locked together as though intent on squeezing the life out of each other.’

This could have been the last line of the novel, a final ghastly tableau of mankind’s mutually destructive urges. But no. For pages now, Zola has been carefully setting up a far more apocalyptic image to end with. The man who is out to kill Jacques is his fireman, Pecqueux, driven to jealousy because Jacques’s new lover used to be his. He has been feeding and nursing his jealousy, and has arrived for work deliberately drunk. We know, because we’ve been acquainted with this man a long time, that drink is bad for him… and so does he. Whilst stoking up the engine’s fire-box almost to bursting-point – not only a metaphor of his own enraged state, but part of the set-up for the novel’s cataclysmic finale – he relentlessly needles Jacques into a reaction. Pecqueux retaliates with such deadly violence the fight can only possibly end in the death of whichever one of them falls from the bare metal bridge that forms their footplate. It’s Jacques who finally tumbles – but not without pulling Pequeux down with him, leading to that hideous image of violent self-destruction.

What comes after this is an extraordinary set piece over nearly two pages. War has been declared with Prussia – Zola has always chosen his dates carefully in this novel, and it is July 1870 now – and the train is pulling truckloads of men towards what he eventually presents as a kind of existential oblivion. Immediately after the description of the two men’s mangled bodies, Zola reminds us where we are. The engine is new, a replacement for the one that Jacques had come to know and love like a woman over many years but which had been destroyed in the derailment. Now, ‘on the engine raced, out of control, onward and onward. At last this restive, temperamental thing could yield to the wild energy of youth….’ What that means, of course, is that nothing and nobody is going to stop it. Following a description of its ever-increasing speed and the measures taken to get other trains out of its path – Zola is always meticulous with details like this – we reach the final sentences of the novel:

‘What did it matter what victims it crushed in its path! Was it not, after all, heading into the future, heedless of the blood that was spilled? And on it sped in the darkness, driverless, like some blind, deaf beast turned upon the field of death, onward and onward, laden with its freight of cannon-fodder, with these soldiers, already senseless with exhaustion and drink, still singing away.’

In other words, Zola appears to be insisting that la bête isn’t only inside a few characters in this one sensational novel. It’s deep inside this bizarre society we have created – inside everybody in the world.

[Pause.]

I haven’t given anything like a full picture of either the fairly relentless cruelty of these final chapters, or of the very particular narrative universe Zola has created. The last time I read a novel as carefully plotted as this was Fielding’s Tom Jones, a comedy in which the outlandishness of the twists and turns of the plot becomes a key part of the entertainment. In this novel something different is happening, a different kind of existential inevitability, if such a thing exists. It seems to be part of Zola’s project to insist on the plausibility of every single event despite, at another level, making no effort to make his main characters behave in ways we recognise. In particular, we don’t know anybody in real life who will set up a cold-blooded murder on a train, somebody else (a close acquaintance of his) who has a compulsive desire to murder women, another man (close to the second) who poisons his wife for a sum that equates to few months’ salary, another… etc. Nor is it easy to imagine a single geographical location where all these things might take place, on the railway line or in houses that are near to it. So the set-up is preposterous, and no reader can be expected to take it literally.

And yet… Zola does everything in his power to make his version of France before the Franco-Prussian War as realistic as he possibly can. From the precise evocation of the Realpolitik that rules the lives of local civic dignitaries to the harsh working experiences of railway workers and the importance of getting the trains to leave on time the hyper-realism is there from start to finish. It’s in the long description of Roubard’s view over the station from the window of his borrowed room on page 1, and it never goes away, right up to the runaway train’s tearing advance through half-a-dozen named stations at the end. Together with Zola’s assiduous attention to the details of the plot – I imagined at one point the spreadsheet or card-index system he must have used – it’s as though Zola wants us to believe that it could happen, it could. It couldn’t – and the mismatch makes for that narrative universe I mentioned that is nothing short of bizarre.

At the beginning of Chapter 10, Jacques’s aunt is dead, poisoned by the stunted little weed of a husband. After she has begun to suspect him, he abandons his top-down approach of tampering with her food, and puts rat-poison in enemas she now has to use. Ah. And her seated corpse is there as an open-eyed, grinning witness to what comes next…

…which is the derailment Flore brings about. She has spent weeks thinking about how she could put an end to the relationship between Jacques and Séverine. She is tortured by the glimpses of them she catches every Friday, he on the locomotive and she on one of the front carriages, as they make their way to their weekly rendezvous in Paris. A derailment, she thinks, will kill both of them. On the fateful day she has a plan in place – Zola has gone through every detail, down to the timings of regular trains and the possibility of extra goods trains – but there’s a last-minute hitch. Cabuche’s mate, hauling tons of stone in a cart puled by five horses, has to cross the railway line. We know this sometimes happens, having first witnessed it in Chapter 2 – Zola always makes apparently chance events seem plausible – and, thinking on her feet, Flore invites him into the house. He’s had feelings for her for chapters now, another of the interlocking elements of the plot, and he agrees. She leaves him inside, paying his respects to the grinning aunt, while she pops out for a minute. She leads the horses across the line and, helped by her well documented Amazonian strength, she stops the cart. It’s just beyond a bend after the tunnel we know about, so Jacques will have no time to slow down the train….

Zola’s descriptions of the accident are as extraordinary as we’ve come to expect, from the impact itself to the last panting moments of the mangled locomotive expiring like a dying thoroughbred. Then there are all the details of the buckled carriages, the screams of the injured, the body parts, the rescue that takes up the rest of the day. This is the reality of a train crash as evoked to the best of this author’s ability… and meanwhile, Flore has realised that two separate strokes of good fortune have saved both the lovers. Her plan has come to nothing, as she realises after her almost superhuman efforts to lift mangled parts of the locomotive to find Jacques, miraculously alive. Whatever her motive, it isn’t remorse for the terrible loss of life that leads her, once at least one line is open, to walk into the tunnel towards an oncoming train.

These are the events of Chapter 10, and the next chapter is as detailed, and as carefully constructed. Zola has neatly got Séverine and Jacques together properly, after she suggests that he spends as long as it takes for his recovery. Her house is near his aunt’s, and they know that her husband is beyond caring what they might get up to – but for form’s sake, Séverine insists that another recovering victim of the accident is installed there at the same time. Over many days, Jacques recovers. Séverine seems to have spent a lot of time in the company of the other employee, and there is a lot of laughter during his daughters’ frequent visits…. Jacques isn’t exactly jealous, but Séverine has subtly been working away on his feelings of shame at being unable to do the murder, slipping into their conversations insincere little remarks that it doesn’t really matter, they can get along without emigrating to America…. He promises to do it, again, and they hatch a simple plan. She will send a telegram to her husband telling him to come to the house the following morning to meet a prospective buyer. They know his urgent need for money will make him jump at the chance, and when he arrives, Jacques will kill him. All they need is an alibi….

He will catch a train to the next town as though making his way back to work (Zola gives times and distances), book a room on the ground floor, make a big thing of having an early night, climb out of the window, do the three-hour walk back to Séverine’s house, kill her husband, walk back, climb back in and make sure he is seen coming out of his room next morning. And… it works perfectly. Later, the alibi is accepted without question, a typical example of the way Zola sets things up for the high-profile trial in Chapter 12. The irony is that Cabuche, who Zola makes sure is in the wrong place at the wrong time, is on trial for the murder of Séverine. Just before her death there she had been, half-naked, encouraging Jacques to strip so that there will be no blood on his clothes. The knife was to hand, and… Jacques just couldn’t help himself. The doting Cabuche, who has had a chaste, boyish crush on her ever since the breakdown in the snow and has been looking up at her window, is brushed by someone rushing out of the house in the dark. He runs in to find her and – I’m not making this up – covers himself in blood while trying to revive the body. This, inevitably, is the exact moment when both Roubaud and the poisoner arrive.

What Zola is doing is making the circumstantial case against Cabuche absolutely watertight. We are reintroduced to Denizet, the incompetent magistrate, who has never stopped believing that Cabuchet was the mystery killer on the train nearly eighteen months before. Zola enjoys himself as he revels in the simple satirical points he can make about this fool whose reputation is made as he puts together a case based on two separate killers pulling the wool over his eyes. After the arrest of Cabuche, he is nonplussed by the man’s brute-like refusal to accept what Denizet sees as his palpable guilt. He arrests Roubaud, who he decides now is clearly the brains behind both murders. The all too plausible motive, according to a theory Denizet had rejected (for the wrong reasons) nine chapters back, is money: the first murder was to hasten Séverine’s inheritance of the house, the second to make sure he could have all the money to himself. And each time, he’s got Cabuche to do his dirty work. Denizet is completely fixed in this idea: ‘the sureness of the logic and the strength of the evidence lent such unbreakable solidity to the case he had constructed that the truth itself would have seemed less true, sullied by fantasy and illogicality.’

This is the moment, some way into Chapter 12, when I felt the narrative move into the strange realm I’ve been talking about. Zola draws the reader’s attention to the outlandishness of the supposed reality that he has so carefully constructed. We’re not at all surprised when, with Zola having arranged the political winds to be blowing in the magistrate’s favour now, not even Roubaud’s despairing admission of the truth of the first murder will sway either him or the jury. As he realises that nobody believes him, ‘he finally shrugged his shoulders and refused to say any more. Why bother to tell the truth, when it was falsehood that was logical?’ This isn’t reality any more – if it ever was – but a hellish universe in which truth, along with the millennia of moral evolution Jacques and the others are so ready to dismiss, counts for nothing. I haven’t mentioned Freud once so far, but the watertight nature of the plotting becomes the working through of a relentless existential variant of post-Freudian determinism.

Meanwhile Jacques, a free man and with no suspicion hanging over him after the trial, feels no remorse for the life sentence of hard labour that Cabuche is to serve for a crime he didn’t commit. And he feels just as free of guilt over the way he has stolen Pecqueux’s lover away from him. But, inevitably, he isn’t free from his old ‘malady’. And there’s a beast inside his rival too. Things being the way they are in this universe, they take the course they have to.

Hey, humanity, you think you’ve got free will? You think you have control over anything? Hah.